Vladimir Lenin at Smolny (1930) by Isaak Brodsky
If there exists a history of popular themes, then, there too must exist a history of unpopular ones. For every grand theme—good versus evil, man versus nature—there exists myriad small and minor ones. These sorts of thematic marginalia haunt the peripheries, sifting through the substratum, making far-off ideas warm to the touch.
It is of no coincidence that some of the best film writers have written in defense of this sensation: Manny Farber’s “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” Claude Chabrol’s “Little Themes,” and Tom Gunning’s “Toward a Minor Cinema.” In his essay, Farber inveighs art aimed at Grand Themes that obsequiously fall in line with traditional notions of “densely wrought, European” masterpieces. In his rock-true manner, Farber writes how graceless, capital “A” art becomes antiseptic and stiff, citing Antonioni and Truffaut as promulgators. Chabrol’s essay makes the case that “the smaller a theme is, the more one can give it a big treatment,” a claim that he more or less followed throughout his career. And Gunning’s essay, written in the late 1980s as a corrective to the perceived decline of the avant-garde, begins with a sharp quote from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, “There is nothing that is major or revolutionary except the minor. To hate all languages of masters.”
An unforeseen windfall of artistic mediums is that, through sheer harmonizing, they can embolden some of life’s natural demarcations. Architecture, of course, sets store by defining indoors versus outdoors, whereas cinema’s major preoccupation is light versus darkness, days versus nights. One could easily define these fixations, which are steamed and pressed every so often in new works, as themes. For cinema, the jockeying of light and night was there near the start, in the photography of German expressionists and carried through American noirs. Lightness and darkness, and the division between them, is inherent in the ontology of the photographic image. But among life’s other dualisms—consciousness and unconsciousness, interiority and exteriority, subject and object—there exists another for which cinema, with its ability to record movement and stasis, is equipped to handle: sitting as opposed standing.
Sitting as a theme has examples located outside the cinema, both in literature and poetry. The first passage of William Gass’ novel, The Tunnel, an opus so magnum it was begun on a typewriter in the 70s and finished on a computer in the 90s, is about reckoning with a life spent in a chair. The main character, William Friedrich Kohler, is a scholar of Nazi Germany and, therefore, resigned to a life in a chair: writing, researching, thinking. It is a simple notion to begin a book whose sundry thematic concerns dart anarchically throughout like unseen organisms under pond scum. Going forward, it creates a sort of tripling effect on the reader: Kohler, as he writes the introduction of his own magnum opus from his desk, is forced to reflect on a life in a chair. Gass, no doubt, does most of this writing, like Kohler, from a chair. And, finally, the reader takes this in being, on most occasions, seated. For Gass, sitting is a metaphor for the passivity and apathy that allowed for the atrocities of the 20th century. Besides, how much of that evil was engineered by deskbound perpetrators? Even Kohler, who was studying in Germany before the Anschluss, witnesses Kristallnacht from his bedroom window in ‘38, describing the events without interfering.
Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor (2000)
Certainly not all thematic sitting connotes such malefic indifference. Among the ranks of the pro-sitters is César Vallejo’s poem, “Stumble Between Two Stars,” which whistles up the gloomy details of a downtrodden existence (“Beloved be that one with bedbugs, the one who wears a torn shoe in the rain.”) only to interpose brief moments of respite from the despondency in the form of routine pleasures: laying on one’s back, going to the cinema, and, most of all, the pleasure of sitting down. “Beloved be the one who sits down,” he writes.
This poem supplies the epigraph for Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor, providing our confluence of cinema and sitting. Andersson, a man who looks to know his way around a chair, returned to feature filmmaking in 2000 after a period of quiescence, with the first film of what became his “Living Trilogy.” Awash with dull pastels, frumpy characters, and vanishing point sets, Songs is a series of interconnected vignettes that use Vallejo’s poem, both its words and its quiddity, as a through-line. In the film, one recurring character, Kalle (Lars Nordh), has a son, a poet who went mad. Now in a mental hospital, he lies on his bed, aphasic, as Kalle’s other son, Thomas, reads him lines from Vallejo’s poem. For Andersson, there is little difference in a mental hospital between patients, doctors, and visitors. Each is vulnerable to the erratic chaos that governs the world. This force is unstoppable even if it is motionless, best exemplified by the unceasing traffic running throughout the city. Andersson suggests no end to the wickedness that prevails even though his static frames belie the constant, momentous bedlam undulating like sheet metal.
The subtle, recurrent offering throughout the film is in the general distinction between standing, sitting, and lying down. Here is where the influence of Vallejo’s poem rings loudest. The seated characters, while not given any reprieve, do find some sort of brief equipoise between chaos and lassitude. It is that routine pleasure, written of by Vallejo, that peppers the abject life in Songs from the Second Floor. The standers, those least protected from the capricious gales of favor, are either apathetic bystanders or pale spectres back from Neflheim to haunt the (barely) living. But those lying down are just as susceptible to bad fate. Whether it is the senile general with Nazi sympathies who declares, from his hospital bed to an unsuspecting crowd celebrating his centenary, “give my best to Göring.” Or the man who lies down for a sawed-in-half magic trick, who screams out in pain as the saw begins to make contact with his skin. Later we see him in agony, lying in bed, when his wife moves in her sleep, sending him into fits of discomfort as her turning bounces him about. For Andersson, those seated are shown to have it, relatively, the best. They incur the least amount of harm, for however briefly.
Jean Gabin (seated) in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955)
There is a nearness one can feel with sitting as a theme. A viewer, if he or she is so inclined, may feel the pangs of recognition in a character’s desire to sit with similar desire to feel contentment. Nowhere is this as prevalent as in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955), a film that accrues a strange thrall in spite of its simple premise. The sets, the colors, and its general vigor can all take some credit in why the film is such a delight. But the nexus rests on the character of Henri Danglard, played with grace and gravitas by Jean Gabin, whose fortitude and passion everyone flows centripetally around. The source of Danglard’s endearment is in his unremarked upon skill at always finding a place to sit. Many of Renoir’s frames are filled with pure commotion but Gabin plays Danglard statuesquely with a calming force that tempers the chaos into comedy. Contrasting Gabin’s relaxed embodiment with its antithesis, say Tony Curtis’ performance as Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), one finds just how rare a still performance is. The writer of Sweet Smell of Success, Clifford Odets, suggested to Curtis, “Don’t be still with Sidney. Don’t ever let Sidney sit down comfortably.” This note typifies the frenetic energy running throughout the film as Curtis’ devious, striver Sidney is always in motion. He finds no reprieve and no rest—a tragic fate, one that would never befall Henri Danglard.
Jean Gabin in French Cancan (1955)
The stillness, percolating through Renoir’s film, is more often found in experimental works, which vouchsafes some all-too-obvious overlaps between sitting and art-house offerings. Slow cinema is a likely candidate, but those exposed to sitting there are forced to feel its merits like a crown of thorns. The true aspirants for this theme are few and far between. One such film, which gestures toward the metaphysical, is Ernie Gehr’s Eureka (1974). Working with a film taken of San Francisco’s Market Street from the early 20th century, Gehr elongates the frames of the source material so what was a 10-minute film has become 38 unhurried minutes. In the source footage the camera is mounted on the front of a trolley so the viewer assumes the role of a seated passenger. This point-of-view imparts one with a sensation of sitting and experiencing traveling in time—not time travel, but the small task of moving from point A to point B in 1905. More abstractly, the film’s languid rhythms allow for brimming introspections to eventually overflow onto the viewer’s awareness of his or her own seatedness. The dual sensations of seatedness, which occurs through a particular immersion necessary to experience Eureka, sketch out the metaphysics of sitting: the filamentary feeling one equates between the physical act of sitting and its figurative renderings on the screen. That response, only found through cinematic projection, is situated in a common pleasure—which is a reason one enters the theater in the first place.
The usefulness of themes is in the way they canalize thoughts, and the thematics of sitting, being minor, are capable of offering new thoroughfares of expression. It is a little-used way into a film, but through its routine function, a vital approach for understanding everyday decisions. The desire to sit, as with Gabin’s Danglard, seeps in through the margins, offering meaning by way of sly identification and a feeling of amour-propre. And if there is something revelatory about thematic sitting it is the notion that pleasure is not independent from thought. A reasonable insignia for all cinema.